The Sun Singer's Travels

Malcolm R. Campbell's World

Getting started writing a new book – how the hell does one do it?

Fear and trembling would be a good start. What I’ve mainly learned is how to handle large stacks of paper. My approach—or hope—has always been the same. I try to make each book different and to push at my own limitations. So, every book is an altogether new experience, as if for the first time. I’ve never been there before, I don’t know the territory. I can’t rely on the past—except for the large stacks of paper—and the future is always problematic. – Lloyd Alexander (“Chronicles of Prydain”) in response to an interviewer’s question about how he starts working on a new book

Some say all writers fear a blank page. Perhaps now we should change that to a blank screen, one with a cursor that will blink until infinity while we become more and more bewitched, bothered and bewildered trying to get started.

I’ve been told that a random number of writers just type something, anything, that may or may not have something or anything to do with the novel. Suppose you’re writing an epic to be called Fifty Seven Shades of Lust. How the hell do you start a book like that?

  • Henry Heinz walked up to a young nymphet in a bar and said, “Hello, my darling, my name’s Henry and I can offer you 57 varieties of lust.”
  • Elizabeth lay dozing on the satin sheets in Henry’s over-sized double bed, pondering, how do I lust after thee? Let me count the ways.
  • The bar where Henry accidentally met Elizabeth was so dark that veteran drunks often said, “Nobody ever meets anybody at this place because it’s the color of pitch or maybe the devil’s heart or the bottom of a well filled with snakes.”

The plan is, once these random writers type whatever the hell they type, they can start writing the real stuff. Those opening lines are rather like prompts, or taunts, maybe, in which the muse is screaming “you can do better than this.”


Like weddings and funerals, writing often gets done–or gets started–with rituals. Writing something, anything, might be a ritual for some. Others, however, need the trappings of real or imagined magical instruments. As Maria Popova notes in The Odd Habits and Curious Customs of Famous Writers, “Color-coded muses, rotten apples, self-imposed house arrest, and other creative techniques at the intersection of the superstitious and the pragmatic.”

  • Balzac drank coffee.  Coffee allows one to dawdle, especially if one makes it in what I call a fru-fru manner which takes lots of time for a very small cup. Then, after typing, “Henry Heinz walked up to a young nymphet in a bar,” you can go make another cup.
  • Maya Angelou checked into a hotel. That sounds rather expensive. It’s definitely the stuff of ritual whether you like a bland looking room like Angelou did or whether you need palm trees, a beach, a pitcher or margaritas and a direct line to room service.
  • Henry Miller worked by the clock. Set a start time and an ending time and write.  At first glance, this sounds like the opposite of creativity. Busy people, however, claim that time as “my time,” an hour or so crammed into a life filled with family obligations, a 9-5 office job, and dozens of other chores. The discipline keeps them going.
  • Ray Bradbury couldn’t stay away from the typewriter. He had so much he wanted to write and so much he needed to say, that he would sit down at his typewriter as often as possible.  I often feel like this once a story gets started. But before getting started, it’s easier to pretend I don’t know where the PC keyboard is. Being unable to not write: that’s a joyful place to be.
  • Preparing your workspace: This can be like making coffee or sharpening a thousand pencils if you let it get out of hand. John Carlton (quoted in “8 Strange Rituals of Productive Writers”) calls it “prepping the desk.” Like a good cook or a good surgeon, you assemble everything you’re going to need–possibly an outline, some notes about the characters, a dictionary, extra paper. When the desk is ready, then the stage is set–so to speak–to write as opposed to, say, playing Angry Birds or reading e-mail.
  • Dan Brown prefers antigravity boots. He says hanging upside down helps him relax. Truman Capote wrote in bed. More ritual, you see. Or, perhaps crutches we think we need. But if sitting in a coffee house, setting up a chair on a beach, or walking through the woods to a favorite rock or old tree or pond makes the words flow, it’s hard to make fun of it.
  • Meditate. If one isn’t careful, this turns into sleep and one finds s/he accidentally took an afternoon nap instead of working on the next chapter of, say, Fifty Seven Shades of Lust. Some writers actually do take naps because plots, scenes and even dialogue come to them in dreams. Meditation, however, can be an effective way of clearing the cares of the day out of one’s mind. It’s difficult to write while fuming over the latest story in the news or worrying about what the boss might say at tomorrow’s meeting.
  • Clothes (if any): Various writers have claimed that writing nude, in skivvies, in pajamas, in a favorite tee shirt or bathrobe or cap is part of the storytelling process. This adds a bit of superstition to the mix if you think of baseball players who won’t change their socks while on a winning streak or a little sacredness is you think about the vestments worn by the clergy.
  • Keep doing research. Yep, this can be a way to avoid writing the story. It can also immerse you in the thought processes, locales and lifestyles of your characters. I like this approach a lot because the facts on this web site or that keep priming the pump and/or serving as writing prompts.

This list isn’t definitive. We each approach the blank screen or the empty legal pad in our own ways. After a while, we find out what works. What works might begin as a fluke when, say, we’re swimming in a salt water pool and think of a wonderful plot or we’re looking at the blinking cursor and grab a shot of Scotch: Hark, a new ritual is born. Sometimes, just getting started is half the battle.






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